Tom Waits joins local bands for a wild experimental ride
By Karl Byrn
WALKING INTO Gatmo Studio, a 12-by-20-foot home studio operated by west county resident Gary Knowlton, a musician's eyes settle on familiar items: a small PA system, a 16-track mixing board, mike stands, extra guitars, and shelves full of tapes. But the most visible and intriguing items aren't found in typical studios: experimental instruments like the Bug, the T-Rodimba, the Water Harp, the Buffoon-a-phone, and a wall of hubcaps.
"The Cadillac and the Olds sound the best," Knowlton quips enthusiastically.
Since the late '80s, the 52-year-old multi-instrumentalist has hosted jam sessions at Gatmo with a number of like-minded local musicians--primarily collectors and inventors of rare and strange instruments, artists who are driven neither by the machinery of touring and hits nor even by formal songwriting, but by a thirst for improvised sonic experiments. The highlights of some stellar sessions from 1993 to 1997 are now out on disc as Moanin' Parade (The Gatmo Sessions, Vol. 1), available at local music stores or on the Internet through the Santa Rosa-based label Jackalope.
Moanin' Parade features two groups. One is Knowlton's own trio, Petit Mal, with his brother Michael and former neighbor Richard Waters, inventor of the waterphone (a device sometimes used for eerie deep-sea sound effects in films). The other is the quartet C-Side (or California Sonic Instrument Designers Ensemble), which includes Waters and other inventors, like Marin musician Bart Hopkin, who is best known for assembling the acclaimed 1996 Ellipsis Arts compilation Gravikords, Whirlies & Pyrophones and its 1998 follow-up, Orbitones, Spoonharps & Bellowphones.
Both Waters and Sonoma County resident Tom Waits appear on the Hopkin CDs; Waits also wrote the foreword to Gravikords.
Several guest improvisers also appear on the Moanin' Parade disc, including Waits, who adds vocals or keyboards on all the tracks. Indeed, the CD is reminiscent of Waits' more experimental recordings, circa 1993's The Black Rider.
"When I first moved here, I started hearing these really weird sounds," Knowlton says of the opportunity that brought him to meet Waters. The sound turned out to be his neighbor's amplified waterphone, and recording experiments at Gatmo Studio began. Knowlton's background in bluegrass and blues-rock expanded to follow the ideas that "you can get a sound out of anything" and that "there's no right or wrong way to play."
Knowlton owns more than 30 experimental instruments, but Petit Mal will feature conventional instruments like the trumpet or the bass guitar. C-Side explores the inventors' own unusual percussive and humming devices, like Hopkin's kelp saxophone, Darrell DeVore's wind wands, and Tom Nunn's huge xylophonelike wood and metal sculptures. C-Side members owe a debt to the 1950s instrument inventor Harry Partch, while they echo influences of African and Asian music. Petit Mal jam around sounds pulled from free jazz, Dixieland, and field hollers.
"I know our music isn't for everyone," Knowlton says of the disc's atonality, shifting shapes, and nonlinear rhythms. "To some people there're parts [of this music] that may be annoying. But if there're things that can be taken as funny, or if the listener can go 'Wow, that's interesting' or 'Wow, that's different,' then there is an audience for [this music]."
Indeed, Doug Jayne of Jackalope (and the Last Record Store) says the label has seen brisk Internet sales, owing in part to a mention of Moanin' Parade on Waits' official Web page. "We've been selling 10 or 20 a day" over the Net, he says, "and [at the store] we never sell 10 or 20 of anything in a day."
With this strong response, Knowlton is already planning to release Swarm Warnings (The Gatmo Sessions, Vol. 2) by late spring or early summer.
THE CUTS ON Moanin' Parade and Swarm Warnings were entirely improvised with no post-recording overdubs, as Knowlton designed Gatmo in a way that dampens louder sounds and accentuates quieter ones. Apart from occasional small contact mikes on the instruments, the acoustic sessions were recorded simply with two room mikes running through a pre-amp to DAT. As for composition, the pieces began as "concepts." For example, Knowlton mentions a concept such as sustain, where all notes must be held rather than struck or plucked, and a concept of starting with no rhythm, working toward a basic pulse and shifting to a new and distinct rhythm.
"I can go back in [when editing] and say, 'Yeah, right there it really starts brewing,'" Knowlton says, adding that "I try to use other people's ears as much as possible." It's part of the Gatmo philosophy that one should "never do the same song the same way twice."
Knowlton notes that the C-Side and Petit Mal musicians still have to work for a living. His own day job as a special-education instructor at the Sonoma Developmental Center reflects a generosity and imagination that help make his Gatmo sessions a true and pure alternative music. While he's not impressed with so-called alternative rock, he cites Beck as a current wonder, admires the energy that punk brings to pop, and respects the technical arts of sampling and mixing.
After Swarm Warnings, Knowlton plans to match various guests for a series of odd and unpredictable duo and trio recordings. "Music doesn't have limits," he says. By chasing the edges of chance, Knowlton and his companions have created what a graffito on Gatmo's ceiling calls "alien folk music."
From the April 6-12, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
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